Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Economic Realities of Performing South Asian Arts in NYC

I am writing this post fresh off of a number of discussions I have been having with other organizers/arts administrators/tech persons at theaters.

It is fascinating because in some ways the realities of being a South Asian artist are the same as many other classical forms. And in others, we completely diverge.

Touring the US has exploded for South Asian/Indian artists in the last 10 or 20 years. It is clear that the way many artists are sustaining themselves are not in India but by performing for global - and in particular, US and UK - audiences. Simple economics: the suburbs, filled with wealthy Indians who are intent upon remaining connected to their home country through the arts - allows them to pay the high prices artists demand (typically between $3,000 and $6,000 dollars). Coupled with the fact that the South Asian demographic continued to grow in wealth during the recession, it makes sense that the new trend is for everyone to try their hand at touring.

The cities - especially New York - is another story.  There is no ready-made audience of students and parents intent upon culture here. Indian parents are just like every other New Yorker: they value what is good, not what ties them back to India. When the option of the New York City Ballet or an Indian arts performance are your two options, and your experiences in the latter have been that of 3 hour long shows that start late and is perhaps not very "trendy" and the prices are the same ($20 a show!) which would you choose?

So in New York City, there is a big movement going on amongst South Asian artists, to provide arts in an exciting light. But we're really building an audience from the ground up. Because an artist is big in India does NOT mean they will automatically be big in New York. There are a limited number of producers here and the vast majority of us are small beans. We are excited when a concert has 75 people in the audience, which may seem like nothing to most major artists.

And, after conversing with many many folks in the field of arts (not just Indian classical arts) this is the same trend everywhere. You may see money but it this perceived wealth is not actually indicative of money.  Everyone is struggling to make ends meet, even producers with full concerts, which are often peppered with many complimentary tickets. It has been repeated to me time and time again by many folks: the audience for the arts are decreasing, yet there has been a steady upward trend in touring artist fees - for both Eastern and Western markets.

So it is the strangest thing to me when someone says, "if we just market this one concert properly, we can make back the few thousand".  I hear it on a regular basis. "Well, the content is good, so we should be able to make this happen!" Unfortunately, for the arts, this is just not the case.

From my seat, it's just a crazy proposition for someone who has not started building a fan base in New York City where a draw of 75 people excites many of us. The only major producer who can afford such fees for an Indian classical artists are Asia Society and World Music Institute. How many Indian concerts do they produce a year together? 3 or 4. How do they pull in big crowds? Because they are not just producing South Asian arts concerts. The audience, thus, is not interested in South Asian music or dance, persay...just different kinds of world music and dance.

So contention arises - I am sure many artists find issues with New York South Asian arts producers, wondering if we are just not understanding the value of what they are providing us (we do! We would love to pay you $5,000 if we had it, but we don't!) or perhaps our jobs could be done better if we *just* applied for more grants or *just* changed our marketing strategy and did outreach a particular way everything would change. (I cannot tell you how many emails I have received along these lines). I have seen other organizers speak to us, then try to produce bigger concerts and finally come back with an understanding of what we have been saying all along.

So when an artist DOES come around and agree to what we normally offer (often a split of ticket sales), in an effort of sustainability and to create more Indian arts in NYC I am eternally grateful. It is an absolutely sad state of affairs that Indian arts has a teeny, tiny sliver of the audience of the "arts center of the world".  It is definitely charity that they are doing by performing for funds that probably barely cover their costs.  But it is an investment. It is an investment to inspire people to come watch more Indian music and dance, an investment in creating a base for yourself, an investment in the future of Indian dance and music. So, the artists of generous spirit understand and agree to this.

Inevitably, however, if an artist sees success during a performance, another cognitive dissonance comes in.  There is an expectation that full or exciting automatically means $1,000. Often, the average of a successful show is $400 - $600 that goes towards an artist at Navatman. And inevitably, this upsets some people. Very often, we are taking on losses to provide more for artists. I assume on many levels it is exactly the same cognitive dissonance of why there is such a  lack of understanding of wealth inequality in the US.

Additionally, the cognitive dissonance goes another way. You may see an artist book 13, 14 cities but in the past year even the biggest artists have come away making very little to no money. It is a shock to me to see the over-saturation of the touring field in the US and additionally the lack of money made by all. By the time you've paid lawyer's fees and visa fees and your ticket to the US, you are paying about $4,000 a let's say you book 13 concerts and are touring with 4 people at $3000 a concert. At the end of the day, after 2 months, you have made for 4 people, $2,000 per month. And this estimate is for some of the top artists of India. And that is IF you get $3,000 per concert. More likely than not, you will have negotiated down significantly on some of them.

So, I put this out there not to anger anyone, but to explain: all is NOT as it seems. Artists, let us come together and make things happen in New York City rather than worry about money! The money will come, but we must invest our time, energy and efforts in this great city first!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wealth Inequality in the US and the South Asian Performing Arts

We all know that wealth is currently a major issue in the US. We throw out terms such as "the gap between the rich and the poor are growing" and "1 percent" without knowing what it really means. Until I stumbled across this YouTube explanation. (Be patient, it is absolutely worth the 10 minutes of your time):

I was shocked at how bad the distribution really is - 50% of Americans struggling along the poverty line seems crazy to me. And another 30% of us floating just above it...

As artists, we constantly talk about "devaluation of the arts" and people not recognizing or appreciating or understanding the worth of our work.

But what if we are thinking about this all wrong? I keep talking about the devaluation of arts, like everyone else, the dying of classicism, etc - but what if its less that people don't appreciate it but simply don't have money to afford it? I am sure the answer is some mix of the two - but if 80% of Americans are making $40,000 or less - how on earth can you afford an arts program that regularly runs at the rate of $35 or more? Classes that can cost upwards of $60 for a private lesson?

Yet, here's the rub: you may say, well, artists should just charge less - but ask yourself this:

How much should a  person, amazing at what they do, touching hundreds of lives, in the private sector? How much should they make? Let us even begin with the premise that we as artists have made a choice to "do what we love" and thus, should earn less. What is this number now? $90,000 a year? Maybe the amount an average college professor makes? Not so bad right? How about $60,000 per year? That's an entry level starting analyst position at Goldman Sachs. The lowest rung. Still not horrible. Maybe you have a little savings now...

How about 50,000? Someone considered the best of the best? How's that? Not so great, considering at this rate most artists are now kind of scraping by, especially if you have a family to support and living near a city where the arts thrive.

But even that $50,000 mark is a long shot for even the best. Forget me as an example. I am definitely below the poverty line, but I am also a small business owner. So maybe this is what year 3 or 4 is supposed to look like. But I work with high level, in demand, critically acclaimed artists all the time. I know that many of the top earners are earning between $25,000 and $35,000 a year. This is absolutely insane to me.

You may say, we need to charge more, or we are not hitting the right economic notes, or maybe this is the market value of what the arts are worth. But I have now been watching the trends for three years. I think many students would agree at Navatman that our classes are worth more. But we price them on the cheap side to reach more arts lovers. Even then, the number of students who want to learn and have to scrape by with payment plans or volunteering is just astounding. It also shows me something about the arts - the want and need of everyone to participate in it and the lack of funds to do so.

So, I do not think the south asian arts are dying around the world because people don't care for the arts. I think they are dying because 90 percent of us are struggling to make ends meet and find a way to enjoy the theater at the same time. We must undervalue our shows, our classes, our booking fees, to try to provide people with a means to go, but at the same time this results in less food on the artists' plate.

When the best of the best are not paid well, the American dream becomes endangered.
So I truly believe our supply and demand system is broken. There's a finite amount of cash and with only 20 percent of the country being able to afford tickets and classes - when we need maybe 40 percent or 60 percent to do so, life becomes an impossibility on a micro level as a south asian performing artist, creating a complete lack of sustainability and a ridiculous amount of necessary patronage from those who do hold the wealth of this country.